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Obama could come unstuck in Guantanamo's legal treacle

Mark Urban | 16:52 UK time, Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Guantanamo BayHoneymoon, honeyshmoon, Barack Obama has already discovered that to enter the world of government is to join battle with a host of critics and naysayers. His decision to suspend trials at the Guantanamo detention centre has aroused objections from defendants accused of organising 9/11.

Surreal as it might sound, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and three others who have pleaded guilty to the charges have asked for their trial at the high security US facility on the island of Cuba to go on. These four alleged al Qaeda kingpins have said that they would welcome martyrdom, and it seems the new president's gesture towards civil rights activists and world opinion is just getting in the way.

If this sounds bizarre, consider two other objections that have emerged to the suspension of the military tribunals. The first is that finding a new way to try certain prisoners and discharge others will just add further delays.

Some, doubtless will consider the wait worthwhile if it thwarts military trials but for many, any move that extends for months or even years the Kafka-esque legal limbo in which they have been held can hardly be welcome. Guantanamo was intended as a short term solution to the problem of holding 'enemy combatants' but once the lawyers got involved defining the nature of trials that would take place there, it got bogged down in legal treacle.

Khalid Sheikh MohammeThe second issue is this. If President Obama is seen to rush the closure of Guantanamo, and some former inmate is involved in attacks on the US or even US forces overseas it could generate an al-Qaeda Willie Horton on steroids. He was a prisoner serving a life sentence for murder who committed rape while on a weekend leave from jail. Horton was used in Republican attack ads to sink Michael Dukasis's presidential hopes in 1988. In fact it would not even require a former inmate to produce this kind of political attack - simply (heaven forbid) a mass casualty terrorist attack on the US soon after the new president closed Guantanamo.

I imagine the new incumbent of the Oval Office is not too worried about getting on the wrong side of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. But let's keep an eye on Guantanamo and we'll see how long it takes to come up with a solution for the prisoners there. For by making the prison camp an issue to be dealt with on his first day in office he has tried to give Guantanamo a key role in his quest to restore America's good name in the world. But if the issue is not dealt with swiftly, safely, and fairly, it will acquire a quite different symbolism.


  • Comment number 1.


    Do not question the scale of his ambitions. For have you forgotten what this man has done already? (Smile.) What an 'unknown' can do with charisma, rhetoric and unlimited funding, joined to Democrat purpose and his inner-need to be great? No plan - not any number of plans - is too big for such a man.

  • Comment number 2.

    It must be possible to expedite the cases of those who have indicated their intention to plead guilty. Surely they could simply be brought before a civilian court, reiterate their guilty plea and be sentenced accordingly. Personally, I would like to see their martyrdom agenda thwarted by life sentences but that is a different issue.

    The point here is that GITMO and the military tribunals have been perceived world wide as an object lesson in how to pervert the judicial process in the pursuit of pragmatic aims. Guantanamo must close if the new President's credentials are not to be compromised and prisoners who intend to plead not guilty must be seen to go through a proper and transparent judicial process.

    The risks of not doing this seem to me far greater than the possible security consequences.

  • Comment number 3.

    Honeymoon, honeyshmoon?
    President Obama had his honeymoon in October, 1992 after his marriage to Michelle.

    He is not in a honeymoon period now, he is the President of the United States with the support of over 80% of his Country and he is making decisions that will cause ripple's around the world. "Honeymoon Period" is a reporters catchphrase and the sort of writing I would expect to see in the Tabloids.

    Let's look at the facts.

    President Obama's Executive order requires closure of the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, no later than one year from the date of the order. Closure of the facility is the ultimate goal but not the first step. The order establishes a review process with the goal of disposing of the detainees before closing the facility.

    The order sets up an immediate review to determine whether it is possible to transfer detainees to third countries, consistent with national security. If transfer is not approved, a second review will determine whether prosecution is possible and in what forum. The preference is for prosecution in Article III courts or under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), but military commissions, perhaps with revised authorities, would remain an option. If there are detainees who cannot be transferred or prosecuted, the review will examine the lawful options for dealing with them. The attorney general will coordinate the review and the secretaries of defense, state and homeland security as well as the (director of national intelligence) and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff will participate.

    The executive order directs the secretary of state to seek international cooperation aimed at achieving the transfers of detainees.

    The order directs the secretary of defense to halt military commission proceedings pending the results of the review.

    Finally, the executive order requires that conditions of confinement at Guantanamo, until its closure, comply with Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions and all other applicable laws.

    Once again, Mr Urban misses the point in favour of dramatisation. The President has taken all steps to ensure National Security. There is no "rush" to close Guantanamo, rather the President is ensuring that his order is carried out with as many safeguards as possible. And if (god forbid) there is an attack on American soil, at least we can be thankful that the response will not be an undignified rush to blame an axis of evil, with the resultant pressure on himself and other leaders to lie and deceive their constituents.

  • Comment number 4.

    #2 threnodio

    Totally agree.

    I was quite surprised to learn in relation to this that the "black prisons", and I assume therefore extraordinary renditions, were used by the CIA and Dulles in the fifties (Legacy of Ashes, Weiner) . Therefore the issues and lessons surrounding offshore prisons should have been well understood a long time ago. Then the "treacle" could have been avoided.

    Thankfully sanity returns to the Presidency and I agree with the sentiments of #3 filmsecurity.

    As ever #1 barriesingleton is on his own planet.

  • Comment number 5.


    you've obviously got the President's Executive Order down in all its essentials. My blog is about the possible difference between pen strokes and real world outcomes. It was also about the political capital this order might afford the president's enemies.

    consider this foreign page lead paragraph from , from The Times today (27/1/09),

    "President Obama's plans to close Guantanamo Bay within a year appeared to be unravelling yesterday with the emergence of former inmates on terrorist websites, fierce opposition in the US, and a lukewarm response to taking detainees from the European Union".

    I don't share the view of the Times journalists who wrote that - nb it seems to me to be quite premature to say the plan is 'unravelling'. But what you get from the Times piece is a sense of the practical difficulties and political opposition that are already showing themselves.
    I don't doubt that President Obama will consider his convictions to be right and will plough on, trying to overcome these obstacles. That's what President Bush did too....

  • Comment number 6.

    And now previously freed inmates are appearing to bite the hand that freed them.

    What stories will have to be suppressed as more inmates leave Guantanamo ?


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